Gov. Granholm: “Do Not Avert Your Gaze From the Tough Stuff of Life”


On May 26, 2013, Jennifer Granholm — former governor of Michigan — gave the commencement speech at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. This was not the fiery DNC Speech that has now become the stuff of legends — this PSR speech was a kinder, gentler one of hope and compassion, a call to the graduating class “to take action to help people”. “Do not avert your gaze from the tough stuff of life — be drawn to the hardest of places”, commanded the Governor.

I’ve written about Gov. Granholm elsewhere on this blog, most notably here, so I don’t want to repeat myself in this post. I will just ask you to watch the video above and read the text. The text is abbreviated and the video is different from the prepared remarks in some places. So in order to get the full effect of the Governor’s passion and dedication, it is well worth your time to watch the video, although the sound quality is not as clear as it could be. Make the effort to listen to these words, and think about what this amazing woman is asking all of us to do — not just the graduating class at PSR. This is a call to action for all who care to act. Listen.

And one more time: Let’s give thanks for Governor Granholm’s presence among us.

Text of Gov. Granholm’s Graduation Remarks, As Prepared

“29 years ago, I was sitting in a chair under the campanile at Berkeley collecting my undergraduate degree. 26 years ago, I was in Cambridge Massachusetts getting my law degree at Harvard. Honestly, as I think about it, in neither case can I remember who the graduation speakers were. Is it because my memory is so bad, or because the speakers were so bad? (Who knows, but I doubt that you’ll remember me in 29 years, or in 29 minutes.)

Those speakers probably had some advice like: Live life to the fullest! Sally forth! Be great! Oh the Places You’ll Go! Etc. etc. Well, I may not remember the advice my graduation speakers dispensed, but I do remember my mom’s advice.

My mom was trapped in the conventions of her generation, but she used to tell me: spread your wings and fly! Seize it! Experience it! Drink it up!

(She also used to tell me not to talk about myself because people don’t want to hear it, not to ask strangers for money, and if I was in a competition with a boy, to let the boy win. How I ever got elected to political office with that advice I’ll never know.)

My advice to you comes from two stories. Two defining moments. The first one is the story of a failure.

Greenville story (4 minutes).

Why do I tell you a wrenching story on this happy day? Your family is whispering, what kind of graduation speaker is this? And where are the jokes?

I tell you this story because although it’s been 10 years, I carry the faces and the pain of those workers with me to this day, and their hopelessness was my fuel to action. Seeing, being a part of their sadness was a catalyst for me to move. That experience lit a match underneath me, to act to diversify Michigan’s economy and create jobs for people like that guy in Greenville.

I’m still obsessed with how to create jobs in America in a global economy. It drives me crazy that DC is all atwitter about some Tea Party groups getting audited, or some Associated Press reporters having their phone logs monitored, or what and when Hillary Clinton knew about Benghazi. All of these are important. But nothing is more important, to me, than the hollowing out of the middle class, the exacerbation of the income disparities between the haves and have-nots, policies to create jobs here for everyday people like that guy in Greenville and the millions like him whose stories are not recorded on the pages of the papers. The ones who are unseen. Invisible.

I would not be so fueled if I had not looked into the eyes of those hundreds of hopeless faces that day.

There is an African expression that my husband taught me: Sawobona. It is a greeting. The response is, Sikkona: “I see you.” Governors live in a bubble. We have security, we have people doing our grocery shopping. We get dropped everywhere, never have to drive or find a place to park. So it’s really easy to NOT SEE.

Which brings me to my second story. When I was AG I copied something from Mike Moore in Mississippi. We called it 2000 for 20000. Then when I became gov, it was Mentor Michigan. My husband led it. He mentored a child who had been passed along in the foster care system, and one who was from a deeply struggling family. I mentored a little girl in Detroit whose mom was a crack addict. When I became gov, we had our entire gov office staff do it.

Brittney story. Churches. Recruiting.

She’s now in a Georgia prison. As a corrections officer.

Jennifer Granholm speech Pacific School of Religion 5-26-13

So my experience with Brittney causes me to obsess about opportunity for disadvantaged kids too. Nothing is more important than this statistic: A child born into a family in the highest quartile of income has an 85% change of earning a college degree, but child born into the lowest quartile of income has less-than-8% chance of going to college. Why isn’t our hair on fire about that??

There was a study out reported on the front page of the NYT: 2/3 of high achieving poor kids don’t apply … even though they could get in, would do as well, and get a free ride. Why? Because they don’t know anyone who went there.

Proving the point that a child cannot BE what she cannot SEE.

And YOU cannot act unless you SEE the lives of others.

So the advice I want to impart is this: what will matter to you most 29 years from today are the experiences that moved you, that compelled you to take action to help people. Do not run from those hard things. Do not avert your gaze from the tough stuff of life – be drawn to the hardest of places.

What did St. Francis of Assisi say? Preach the gospel, and if you have to, use words. How does the saying go? “When you pray, move your feet.”

I hope that you burn with the intensity of one who truly sees, “gets” others’ struggles and pain.

I hope you preach the gospel by working in a homeless shelter or in some of the nation’s poorest schools.

I hope you pray by mentoring a sixth grader who has been passed along in school as he’s been passed from foster home to foster home.

Work with the people who are on the margins – those in prison, the mentally ill, the bullied, the cast-offs, the 21st Century lepers. And I hope you recruit your churches to do the same.

Your biggest gift to the world is to have others see what the freeways are built to drive by quickly – those human beings living in the shadows under the bridges of society.

You, more than other graduates this season, can put your degree into practice: you can truly live out Jesus’ exhortation in the 25th Chapter of Matthew: whatsoever you do to the least of these so also you do unto me. I hope you serve Jesus by seeing him in the shadows, in the dwelling places of the unseen.

May this training, this experience in an amazing school, enhance your vision to really see the unseen; may it give you ears to really hear them, a heart to really feel their suffering. For some reason you have been plucked out, gone to this amazing school, for some reason you are called. It is surely not to be small. It is surely not to be a bystander.

And it is surely not to listen only to the inner voices of personal doubt.

Because we all have doubt. “I can’t do that. I can’t build a movement for others. I can’t run for office. Am I worthy?”

“Will anyone see me?”

Marianne Williamson has great advice — do you know her? She writes that “our deepest fear really is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We as ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We were born to make manifest the glory of God; it is not just in some – it is in every one. And as you let your light shine, you unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As you are liberated from your own fear, your presence automatically liberates others.

As you raise your hand to say “send me,” others will follow you into battle.

In the 6th Chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah says, “Here I am Lord, send me.” By accepting this degree, you also have raised your hand. You have been conscripted. You have asked to be sent into battle. This degree is your sword and your shield. Suit up, on behalf of those with no armour. Suit up!

Nancy Pelosi speaks about this prayer of an African Bishop: “When I stand at last before the face of God, God will say to me, ‘show me your wounds.’ And if I say, ‘I have no wounds,” God will ask: ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?’”

My greatest wish for you, class of 2013, is that at the end of your lives you bear the wounds and scars from the battles that you have waged on behalf of the invisible ones.

I started these remarks by noting that 29 years ago I got a degree in Berkeley. It is May 26, 2013. 29 years from today, on a warm May 26 afternoon in 2042, your parents, and those of us over 50 may not be here (I will be, but some won’t), but you and your children and maybe even your grandchildren will be. If you were invited to give the graduation speech for the Pacific School of Religion what history will you have written — not for yourself– but for those living under the bridges, without names, without anyone seeing them.

Lots of blank pages waiting to be written. And you hold the pen.

So, brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous class of 2013, go forth and let your light shine. Go forth and proudly earn some battle scars, on behalf of something or someone worth fighting for. I can’t wait to read about how you preached the gospel in the history books.


About At Random

I am (Ms.) Jay White Feather, a lifelong New York City resident, born and raised on the mean streets of Manhattan back in the day. I am of Native American heritage -- a native New Yorker who grew up back when it meant something to be a New Yorker. And to me, it still does mean something.
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